Biden’s First Wave

Thousands of migrants are moving from Honduras toward the United States. It’s a first test for the new government in Washington regarding its relations with Mexico.

They are using tear gas and batons. The security forces are doing everything in their power to stop the migrant caravan. It’s the first march of migrants in months — and it’s massive. Some 8,000 people, among them many families and children, left the Honduran capital San Pedro Sula over the weekend. Criminal gangs, the desolate economic situation, and now, on top of that, the pandemic as well as the results of two hurricanes at the end of last year make for a very bleak outlook. The migrants are hoping for a better life in the United States.

For many, the journey ends in Guatemala, though. The government there has mobilized a large contingent of police and soldiers to stop the Honduran migrants. According to the director of the Guatemalan immigration agency, it’s a matter of national security. Authorities say that there are number of criminals are among the migrants, and there is a need to control the pandemic. Hundreds of migrants have already been returned to Honduras. Others are stuck near the city of Chiquimula, where the security forces are waiting. Yet others have split up into smaller groups.

It’s Unclear How Mexico Will Act

Some of the migrants will probably still make it to the Mexican border, despite the Guatemalan police block. The first few are said to have already arrived at the Tecún Umán border crossing. But there, and further north, Mexico’s National Guard is already waiting across the Río Suchiate border river.

It remains unclear how Mexico will react should the migrants want to cross the border in larger groups. In the past, the U.S. government under Donald Trump’s administration was able to put pressure on Mexico, and later Guatemala and Honduras, by threatening punitive tariffs and other measures, in order to stop the migrants from Central America at Mexico‘s southern border.

Pursuant to an agreement with Trump signed in the spring of 2018, Mexico has stopped tens of thousands of migrants before they were able to reach the American border. Furthermore, Mexico offered to serve as a holding area for migrants waiting for the United States to process their asylum applications. In return, Trump took back his threat, and stayed out of Mexican affairs. Trump and his Mexican counterpart, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, apparently got along brilliantly. That’s one of the reasons why López Obrador was among the last heads of state to congratulate Joe Biden on his victory.

Biden Strives for a Realignment of Immigration Policy

This explains why the change of government in Washington with regard to Mexican-American relations poses critical questions about the migrants from Central America. This year will likely see a substantial uptick in migration. The hurricanes have been a catalyst for this, but many people also hope that the change of government in the United States will allow for easier access to the country.

During his campaign, Biden announced plans for a realignment of U.S. immigration policy. In a meeting between Biden and López Obrador in December focused almost exclusively on immigration, the two agreed on closer cooperation to allow safer, more humane migration and to fight the issues that are causing people from Central America to come to the United States. The fate of this first migrant caravan will have a significant impact on the decision of people from Central America who want to leave their country.

But the United States isn’t prepared for an onrush of migrant caravans — not yet, at least. The applications are piling up at the border for lack of specialized judges. Biden recently said that a realignment of the immigration policy would take at least six months.

For now, Biden, like his predecessor, ideally wants to stop the current and future migrant caravans and send them farther south. He needs Mexico for that. He will likely refrain from threatening Mexico, giving López Obrador room to make demands. López Obrador explored this opportunity in recent days when he proclaimed his “a good neighbor policy,” but said he would not be “servile and irresponsible” like his predecessors regarding his country’s sovereignty. The message is clear: As long as Washington stays out of Mexico’s affairs with regard to organized crime, corruption, labor laws and environmental protection, López Obrador will cooperate.

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